When Valentina Tereshkova rocketed into space aboard Vostok 6 in June 1963, she became an instant icon of female achievement. It was another 20 years before an American woman, Sally Ride, left the pull of earth.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration paraded Ride’s achievement as a testament to its acknowledgment that women have a rightful place beside men on the frontier of human endeavor.
Indeed, Ride’s flight was a mark of progress. Women could do anything and could do anything well. It was yet another landmark in our society’s movement toward parity of the genders.
Unfortunately, while there are still gains to be had for total equality, the movement has taken a warped form in recent years — devaluing roles often assumed by women and championing only scholastic or professional achievement. This trend, evidenced in a Swedish preschool’s decision to ban the words “him” and “her,” promises to erode foundational stones of our vibrant society.
These stones, roles traditionally assumed by women — especially child-rearing — are more critical to the establishment and preservation of a healthy society than is brokering a business deal or designing the latest iPhone. Child-rearing, if pursued by loving parents with visions of what their children can become, can lift society above the base and send it rocketing into new spheres of human excellence. Child-rearing forms the character of a society, and a society’s character is more essential and prerequisite to its might, wit and industry.
To suggest women who spend their time raising children — providing for their physical needs and planting them in moral soil — waste their time is to desecrate the remarkable and bedrock contribution women have made to the story of mankind. It’s also a dangerous suggestion because, if women embrace it and follow its subsequent course, will they value motherhood enough to pursue it?
This isn’t to suggest that women should only pursue child-rearing. When Christa McAuliffe was in junior high school, a teacher told her she could be nothing more than an airline stewardess, a teacher or a nurse. She accepted the advice and became a teacher. Years later, NASA announced they would be sending a teacher to space and invited teachers to apply. In her application, McAuliffe wrote that she had been “envious of those men who could participate in the space program and who were encouraged to excel in areas of math and science.”
McAuliffe got the gig, and in January 1986 she was aboard the space shuttle Challenger when a malfunction in the spacecraft’s O-rings doomed the flight, killing the crew. McAuliffe was a wife, mother, teacher and astronaut. She fulfilled roles traditional to a woman and was on the cusp of human ingenuity. Women like McAuliffe should be unabashed about their roles, whatever they decide those roles are, without society’s reprove. If McAuliffe decided to teach and raise children her whole life, society shouldn’t mock that. McAuliffe’s crewmate, Judy Resnik, received a doctorate in bioengineering from the University of Maryland, pursued a career as an astronaut and never had children. Like McAuliffe, Resnik should be applauded for the life trajectory she chose, even though it didn’t include child-rearing, before her tragic death.
Gender roles are not problematic if they are equally valued. The problem isn’t always the role; it’s with society’s perspective on what roles are valuable.